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An interview with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Published: December 11, 2010   
Ray Muese, The Progress
Archbishop J.Peter Sartain prays during his installation Mass at St. James Cathedral in Seattle Dec. 1. In his homily, he encouraged Catholics to pray silently throughout the day.

"Whatever I teach comes from Christ," Archbishop J. Peter Sartain told the Archdiocese of Seattle's newspaper, The Progress, in an interview in November. "And I hope that in everything I do, I proclaim Christ." The 58-year-old native of Memphis, head of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., and former bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock was installed as the Archdiocese of Seattle's ninth bishop at an installation Mass on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at St. James Cathedral.

In an interview with Progress assistant editor Terry McGuire, he reflected on his role as bishop and on some of the elements that have been important to his priestly ministry. His answers have been condensed and in a few instances paraphrased.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being a parish priest?

Sartain: For me, being a parish priest was like a total immersion in the life of the people. It's like the total package.

  • Archbishop Sartain's Seattle
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  • And what I mean by that is that everything about being in the midst of the community of people relates to your own life with Christ. You are sent to bring them the Gospel and to celebrate the sacraments with them; you're sent to bring Christ to them. And at the same time you're getting to know them, and working with them and their joys and their sorrows, and simply being a part of the community with them also feeds your own spiritual life. It also feeds your preaching, so that your preaching begins to be part of your experience in the lives of the very people you minister to, and you're getting to know them when they're ill or visiting them in the hospital or in times of joy when they have children or weddings and that kind of thing. Every aspect of parish life has an effect on the other aspects of your ministry as a priest, and then your desire to shepherd them as a priest and your own prayer and your celebration of the sacraments -- everything fits together like a total package.

    Q: What do you see as your role as bishop?

    Sartain: In many ways I see it as the same thing [as a priest] but obviously in a much more expansive role, because a diocesan bishop is sent to be rooted in a certain place, rooted in the lives of the people who are there, so that's obviously been an important part of what I should do to be rooted in the people who live in the Archdiocese of Seattle. Knowing them and their getting to know me, listening to their desires and hopes -- particularly the desires of their heart for God and their need for God -- will help me to reflect on the meaning of the Gospel in our lives and then also form my preaching and my teaching for them. Classically we understand the role of the bishop as one who teaches and governs and sanctifies. All three of those elements really have to do with allowing Christ to be the one who leads us and guides us, because whatever I teach comes from Christ, and it should be only what Christ teaches because that's what he came to give to the people. And my governing, my shepherding as the bishop, is really the shepherding of Christ. The very fact, for example, that a bishop carries the crosier as a sign of his shepherding here is a sign that it's Christ who leads us all, it's Christ who governs. And so the bishop should lead the people in following Christ and allowing Christ to be the one who governs us and teaches us and leads us.

    Finally of course, and this is what brings it all together, is the sanctifying role of a bishop and a priest, which means that we're sent by Christ, and it's he who brings the grace of salvation to his people through our ministry. He's the one who makes them holy. He's the one who calls them to holiness. He's the one who gives us all the grace that we need in our day-to-day lives to be good disciples, good family members, good members of our community. So for me, it always goes back to Christ. Everything comes from Christ. Christ is the one who should be a part of our entire archdiocese, and everything that we do as an archdiocese and as a people should lead back to Christ. And my role as a bishop is to oversee all that and to make sure that we always keep our focus on him.

    Q: What scriptural passages have special meaning for you?

    Sartain: My episcopal motto -- "Of you my heart has spoken" (Psalm 27:8) -- is one that's a central one for me. And for a couple of reasons: That verse began to sort of jump off the pages of the breviary for me many years ago because I realized that in a certain sense those were the words that my heart was speaking in a way that I couldn't exactly understand. I had an awareness that my heart desired to be in union with God. I had a sense that God wanted me to give my life to him. And so then in a real spontaneous way I began to realize that my heart spoke of God. I also began to realize as a parish priest and then as a bishop that my heart also spoke of the people to whom God sent me. He had sent me to love them and so my heart should also speak of my love for them. And my love for God and my love for them really became one. And what he calls me to do is to share his love and give his love to them.

    There are a couple of other [passages] that come to mind. In Luke's gospel, chapter 12, verse 37: "Blessed are those servants who are awaiting the master when he returns because he will put on an apron and proceed to wait on them." While I'm just paraphrasing that verse, I've always been fascinated and touched by it. The gist of it is that Jesus is saying we are always to be watchful for the coming of Christ. And upon his return, blessed are we who are ready for him, and then he, our heavenly Father, he the one who saves us, will have us recline at table and serve us. I think that verse speaks of God's humility, of his unbelievable love for us. It speaks of the way the Lord Jesus was sent to us as the servant. I think we can only grasp to a very small extent the power of Christ's humility and the power of Christ's love and also the example he gives us to serve one another in the same way that he serves us.

    Another [favorite passage] would be Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter 3, verses 7-12, where he talks about the fact that everything else takes second place everything else is rubbish compared to Christ. He recognizes that Christ is the most important richness that he has and the greatest thing that he has in his life. And he realizes that likewise, what he wants to do is come to know Christ, he wants to understand Christ's suffering on the cross and the power of the Resurrection.

    The other part of that passage that I really love a lot is he talks about the fact that it is Christ who took the initiative. Christ is the one that came to him. Because it is Christ who called out to him and grasped him and possessed him, he wants to respond by giving everything he can.

    Another [passage] I like is toward the end of 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5, verse 23: "May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness; may he preserve you entirely in spirit, soul and body; may you be preserved [blameless] for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

    What Paul is saying is that what Christ wants to do is make us whole, and he promises that Christ will make us whole in holiness and that he is faithful to his promises. That passage appeals to me a great deal.

    Q: You're a sacramental theologian. What is your guiding principle with regard to liturgy and the sacraments?

    Sartain: I'll zero in on two. The first is that the sacraments are the work of Christ. He is always the one who is first. In the words of St. Ambrose: What Christ used to do when he walked on this earth he continues to do in the sacraments. It is Christ who is healing us. It is Christ who is feeding us. It is Christ who is forgiving us, etc.

    So we have to make sure that we always recognize that we don't own the sacraments, the sacraments are the work of Christ. It is he who comes to us ... and it's his grace that takes precedence over everything else. Therefore we should see in each of those encounters with Christ in the sacraments a sacred experience even beyond our comprehension. And the one, of course, that's the supreme of everything is the Eucharist, because that's when Christ sacrificed on Calvary. We're fed with the same food that the disciples were fed at the Last Supper, and the same blood of the covenant from the cross is given to us. So again, it's Christ who is there, Christ offering the sacrifice. We are with him but it is he who does it all, it is he who feeds us.

    The other thing is the classic understanding of the liturgy, the liturgical prayer for Catholics [regarding] the law of praying and the law of believing. They are one and the same for us. We pray what we believe and we believe what we pray. For example, if you were to look at the rituals for any of our sacraments and the prayers that we pray and the way that we go about celebrating the sacraments, you would also see in those words and in those sacred gestures the profession of our faith and what we believe. That's why they're always very closely related and intertwined. One is the expression of the other.

    Q: You told the Arkansas Catholic diocesan newspaper that you knew serving those who speak Spanish was important to the diocese. The Archdiocese of Seattle is known for the breadth of its cultural diversity. How do you feel about coming to serve in an archdiocese with so many different cultures, languages and immigrant populations?

    Sartain: For me, that's one of the very exciting things about the archdiocese. The Diocese of Joliet is more culturally diverse than the dioceses of Little Rock and Memphis. It is not as culturally diverse as the Archdiocese of Seattle, but in Joliet we do have a large Hispanic population, which is about the same size as the Hispanic population in the Archdiocese of Seattle. We also have a very large immigrant Polish population, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino. The Asian cultures are probably more prevalent in the Archdiocese of Seattle than they are in the Diocese of Joliet, but they're present in Joliet, too.

    For me, what's so wonderful about being Catholic is that to be a Catholic really is to allow Christ to show us his face and to reveal the church to us. The church is much broader than my parish or the neighborhood that I grew up in or the ethnic background that I myself have. And for me the blessing of being in an archdiocese that, is so culturally diverse is the fact that, through that, Christ teaches us who he came to redeem, which is everybody.

    And he reveals to us the face of the church, which is universal. And so the privilege of our multicultural environment in the Archdiocese of Seattle is that we can learn from it because, through it, Christ teaches us about those that he loves.

    Q: How has your own life and ministry been enhanced by your service to Hispanic Catholics and your efforts to learn Spanish?

    Sartain: The first language that I studied was Latin, and then French, in high school. Of course, when you study a foreign language like that in an academic setting, you're not necessarily immersed in the lives of people; you learn it by rote and not necessarily by relationships. When I went to Rome for theology in 1974, I learned Italian, and everything took on a new meaning for me in terms of learning a language. Obviously I had to learn Italian because our classes were in Italian. But the more important thing for me was that I saw that language was a door to communication with people. And therefore, language became a door to love, an expression of love. In other words, if I love these people then I will, as best I can, learn to communicate with them. And sometimes that means I will try to learn the language that they speak.

    When I went to Arkansas, I recognized -- having been just across the river in Memphis -- that the Hispanic population was already large and continuing to grow. I realized that I wanted to be able to speak to these people whose language I did not know yet. I also wanted to proclaim God's word to them. And most of all, I wanted to be able to communicate Christ's love to them. And one aspect of doing that is to try to learn the language. So for me, learning Spanish has given me the ability to get to know people who speak Spanish -- emphasis on the people. By no means am I fluent in Spanish. I still have a long way to go.

    But in ministry it's all about expressing the love of God. In this case, it's through language, and understanding and helping people to see how much the church appreciates and embraces them and loves them with the love of Christ.

    Q: What do you hope to make the hallmarks of your ministry?

    Sartain: I don't think I can say anything more than that I hope that in everything I do, I proclaim Christ.

    Q: Describe the role that prayer plays in your life and ministry.

    Sartain: I mentioned earlier when we started about Psalm 27 that a long time ago it dawned on me by the grace of God that I was called to have a relationship with God in prayer, and that was just something that he wanted me to do. I didn't always know how to pursue it, nor did I always pay attention to it in the way that I should. But I came to realize particularly in my priesthood that prayer has to be the center of everything I do. It's got to be. And the reason is that if I don't pray and if I don't make prayer a priority in my life then Christ won't be the center of everything. I want everything that I say and do to flow from my relationship with Christ in prayer.

    I also want everything that comes to me in ministry and every encounter that I have with people through my ministry to flow back into my prayer. As a priest, Christ wants me to bring my love for those whom he loves to my prayer, and he wants to take his love to them through me.

    I realize that if I don't make prayer a priority, then I am not truly giving all that I can to Christ nor am I giving all that I can to his people, whom he loves

    Q: Who were the major influences on your faith life and vocation?

    Sartain: Obviously, my family life: my mom and dad. We grew up in a family where faith was very important, and that had a tremendous influence on my life. Also, when I was [a toddler] one of my aunts became a religious nun and one of my father's good friends was a Franciscan brother. So priests, brothers and religious were always welcome to our house. So I knew that a religious vocation was something that my parents were very open to. And the priests in the parishes where I grew up were wonderful role models for me. They were always very, very kind to me. Father John Atkinson, whom I've known since high school, was an influence. He was our CYO moderator and he was one of those who directly encouraged me to think about being a priest.

    There were two other priests in particular: the [late] Msgr. Patrick Lynch, who was the vocations director for Nashville before the diocese was split [creating the Diocese of Memphis]. He truly became a mentor for me as a priest. And the other one was Msgr. Charles Elmer. He's a spiritual director at a seminary down in Texas, but when I was in Rome he was on the staff of the seminary there. So for about 36 years, Msgr. Elmer has been a great friend but also a great inspiration for me to be the kind of priest that I want to be. The other influence that's been very strong for me all along has been Pope John Paul II.

    Back in 1978 I had one of these life-changing experiences. I had just been ordained a priest and was coming back to Rome for my final year of school to finish my STL [Licentiate in Sacred Theology], so I was in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 16, 1978 when the white smoke went up and he came out and was introduced as the pope. That experience itself was life changing. But then following him and reading his writings and watching his example of preaching the Gospel and fidelity in Christ, and his courage and his suffering -- all of those things have had a profound effect on me and my ministry.

    Q: What was it like to be a new bishop when you were appointed to Little Rock?

    Sartain: Culturally, Arkansas is very close to Tennessee and the environments are very similar. The two dioceses were very different, however, because the Diocese of Little Rock had existed since 1843 and the Diocese of Memphis was not formed until 1971.

    I had to recognize that [Little Rock] was a diocese with a wonderful history, and that I needed to understand its history and all the people who were part of it in order to serve the people well. I had to get around the state to get to know people and understand the background that made them who they are. So I just tried to get to know people and to express my own hospitality for them and to accept theirs. I knew I had a lot to learn.

    Q: What was most memorable for you about your time in Arkansas?

    Sartain: That's hard to answer because there were so many things that I think about when I think back to my experiences there. And the same is true in my time in the Diocese of Joliet. The one thing I would say about the folks in Arkansas is that they had this kind of spontaneous joy at being Catholic. And what's so interesting about that, of course, is like most places in the South, Catholics are a minority. They make up only about 3 percent of the population in the state of Arkansas.

    Yet the Catholics there are deeply rooted in the church, and they work very hard together in order to preserve their Catholic life and their parishes. A lot of the smaller parishes would be miles apart from one another, much like in the state of Washington. So for many, many years the people have been [active] in lay ministry, taking up roles within the church, helping to organize and teach. They have a wonderful love for the Catholic Church and a deep sense of Catholic identity, and a wonderful love for their clergy and religious.

    Q: What do you remember most about your time in Joliet?

    Sartain: This past year we've been in the midst of a diocesan Year of the Eucharist. And I've seen a deep love for the Eucharist in the people of the Diocese of Joliet, not only during this year but also [in the years] before it. It's expressed in all kinds of ways, not only in daily Mass attendance but also in the fact that over the last few years the number of adoration chapels at parishes has grown quite a bit. And that [is thanks to] the leadership of the priests and the spontaneous love of the people for eucharistic adoration. So many of the seminarians and the young women going into religious life in Joliet -- and I find this to be true around the country -- will tell you that one of the great inspirations for being open to a religious vocation is Eucharistic adoration. So I will always connect that to the Diocese of Joliet.

    Archbishop Sartain's Seattle

  • Largest of three dioceses in Washington

  • Established in 1850, archdiocese includes 28,731 square miles of western Washington.

  • 579,000 registered Catholics or 11 percent of archdiocese's residents

  • 144 parishes, 27 missions, two Catholic colleges, 73 schools and 11 Catholic hospitals

  • Two retired archbishops, two auxiliary bishops, 288 priests and 118 deacons

  • 420 sisters and 18 brothers

  • 27 seminarians

    Source: 2010 Official Catholic Directory


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